Jay-Z is the MVP of Hip Hop. Most talks of greatness within the genre tend to revolve around who is the GOAT. However on this day, in celebration of his birthday, I’d like to acknowledge just how much the man helped shape what is now the most dominant genre of music at this bend of the decade. And it wouldn’t be what it is without the very deliberate moves he made and continues to make. Next year he will be 50 years old, 30 years removed from his debut verse, and this year he somehow managed to best himself with one of the greatest verses of his career; a career that seems to never quit as he traverses further along territory that was uncharted miles ago.
Capping the year off with a guest verse on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free?” finds Jay-Z in a different place than he began, though it is born from his first mission statement. There was a point in time when Hip Hop became stigmatized for its materialism and flaunting of riches. In 2018 Jay-Z is the embodiment of where that point in time led to. Some people find it ironic that the last couple of years Jay started to take on the characteristics of a so-called concious rapper. This was the man that unabashedly rapped “truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense, but I did five mil, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since,” detailing how he specifically chose not to rap with the depth of an artist like Common in order to sell more records. This was Mr. Big Pimpin’, christal and designer clothes on yachts, Mr. “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars,” and now all of a sudden his tune seems to have changed. It might seem weird that this billionaire all of a sudden morphed into a hippie, complete with the look to boot. It’s weird until you realize that all this time Jay was stacking up toward freedom.
He’s in the middle of beating the game.
“Three-fifths of a man, I believe’s the phrase,” he begins his What’s Free? verse, making clear the historic notion of Black worth in America. In the era of Black Lives Matter, a statement made to emphasize our value and combat a culture informed by that history of slavery, Jay goes on to bullet-point his literal worth which gives him the power and mobility to destroy these institutions. “I’m 50% of D’USSÉ and it’s debt free,” he continues, “100% of Ace of Spades, worth half a B, Roc Nation, half of that, that’s my piece, hunnid percent of TIDAL to bust it up with my G’s.” There was a time when materialism in Hip Hop was stigmatized. The braggadocio was looked down on. The genius of what Jay did was put a focus on ownership. So while Hip Hop got its first taste of big money and rappers started to buy big in well-earned celebration, Jay learned that it is better to keep one’s money in-house and circulating. Why promote another company’s liquor when you can promote your own? Why wear other brand’s in your videos when you can own your own? Why sign to a label when you can make your own and why rely on another streaming service when you can have your own? The list goes on and throughout the years Jay laid out a blueprint of how to work a system he ultimately had the intention of breaking.
He broke it. I’ll never forget a photo I caught from his Made In America festival. Pictured backstage was former president Bill Clinton and rapper Travis Scott having a casual conversation. I don’t know what that means to you, but to me that is so subtly indicative of Jay’s genius. In this decade, those two figures represent exactly the spaces Jay-Z occupies and retains the ability move seamlessly between. Around 15 years ago he made the simple decision to stop wearing throwback jerseys and baggy jeans and start wearing suits. Being as influential as he was at that time, the culture shifted along with him, as did the connotation of what a rapper looks like and what spaces they’re able to travel in. In one move he destroyed a system of associations and expectations. That alone was revolutionary. A simple change of clothes and a tweak in branding sat him next to the Oprah’s and Warren Buffet’s of the world. This series of associations domino effected into what we see today: a genre that is able to comfortably sit next to the highest ranks of American politics or ecomonics and still set foot in the soil, the street, and the culture it came from. I’ve seen Jay-Z pictured with Barack Obama one day and Gucci Mane the next.
Every genre that makes a splash does so in protest to the current state of culture. The Hippie movement was important in times of war. The Punk movement was important in times of conformity and standardization. And if I’m going to be absolutely candid with you, what we’re seeing with Hip Hop is something so much grander in scale and deeper in meaning and impact. The genre’s beginnings was that of the story of Black America, a story born from bondage, struggle, and the fight for freedom and one’s own humanity. It is a story populated by some of the greatest spirits and minds in human history tasked with this puzzle just the same as it is populated by martyrs. And out of that came Hip Hop, a new language and style of revolution and storytelling. What makes Jay-Z in particular so awe-inspiring was the order in which he unfolded this thing. Yes, in 2003 he opted to not rhyme like Common and a sect of the Hip Hop community took offense. What he did do, however, was build real-world power, influence, and ownership to the point where any powers-that-be couldn’t shut him down. The Hippie movement was important in times of war, Punk was important in times of conformity, and in this era of Black Lives Matter it means something to see a Black billionaire grow his nappy hair out. It means something to see a prominent Black man from the hood make albums exploring his feelings, expressing his joys, propping up his wife and children, advocating for unity among the community, and promoting financial freedom. It means something to see a War On Drugs-era Black Man step into the first Black president’s White House. It means something to know that he can’t be bought.
It means something to see a Black man own himself.
Happy birthday to the MVP.
Back in 2011 @true_sf went up in flames. The two-alarm fire claimed the shop itself, a lot of merchandise, as well as a lot of memories. Out of the ash and rubble, a few of those memories survived.
It takes a certain kind of artist to be in rare form 25 years into their career. Black Thought of The Roots is one of those artists and I would even go as far as to say the man keeps getting sharper. Streams of Thought Vol. 2 is just that. It is the energy of someone who would have been doing this no matter the era. In another world he was a classic American writer. A few years back he and The Roots would stop by the shop every now and then and despite having the mind of a computer, he was always down to earth and humble. These days he’d have every right to be cocky. There weren’t really rap bands back in 1993 and this era saw a huge surge of live instrumentation. In hindsight, The Roots caught that wave before a lot of these acts were born. There’s a moral somewhere in Thought’s career about staying true to yourself.
Since it opened in ’96, the shop and Hip Hop have had a close and thorough relationship with one another. This is a beacon of small business in SF and somehow someway it survived a lot, including both a gutting of everything we know and associate with the city as well as the literal elements. In dedication to this idea of small business, perseverance, and lasting memories, I’ve got 42 polaroids in the chamber and 42 stories attached to them. Stay tuned for more surprises.
Let’s talk about a man that almost singularly deconstructed and reconstructed the rap game in his image.
After 7 years Tha Carter V finally landed and Dwayne Carter returned to a rap game heavily populated by kids wearing his likeness. Between the face tats, the skinny jeans, the double cups, the grills, the dreads, the auto-tuned crooning, and the slurred dialect, I don’t think it was clear in his hayday how far reaching his impact was about to be. This piece right here is an appreciation of Lil Wayne and my clear recollection of when he took the wheel of this thing we call Hip Hop and steered it into uncharted territory. I couldn’t tell you if he moved with much purpose. At the time he seemed less like a man on a clear mission and more like an injection of chaos intro a genre with so much order that in hindsight was maybe a detriment. His “best rapper alive” self-declaration forced all eyes in his direction and initiated one of the most exciting runs we’ve seen; not because it was perfect, but because every step of the way we didn’t know what was going to come next.
Was it purposeful? Hip Hop had a clear aesthetic. We knew what it looked like, we knew what it sounded like, we knew what was allowed in it, we knew what was not, we knew what was good, and we knew what was wack. We knew the rules. And I’m willing to argue that attached to those rules were implications of Blackness and what was and wasn’t permitted within Black American culture. The very core of this piece is attached to the fact that Wayne reclaimed the Rockstar. Rock music was birthed in Black music then co-opted to the mainstream via White artists that went on to be some of the most celebrated legends in America. The term Rockstar, as time passed, ran parallel with those White artists and their entire aesthetic became something wholly separate from Black culture. I remember a time when Blackness indulging in anything Rock was looked at funny. And considering that history, how ironic is that? What I’m saying is I am forever thankful, as we all should be, that Wayne erased one bullet point of many on the list of things Black people weren’t allowed to do. Some people might devalue it because it is less palpable than legislation passed or an office filled, but I value culture and cultural shifts just as much because they go on to trickle outward and affect the thought and actions that physically move us this way or that way.
Hip Hop culture had our guys and they had their guys. Now all of a sudden we had our rapping Steven Tyler, our Hollygrove Mick Jagger, our Cash Money Iggy Pop. And while I’m not sure of his deliberateness, I am absolutely sure of his affect as his decisions went on to rock the greater consciousness. What is he doing? That’s wack! He’s not the best! Is he gay? Men don’t do that! Black men don’t do that! Rap doesn’t do that! At the bend of the digital era in music I remember clearly the contents of the burgeoning internet comment section and how adament fans of the genre were on containing this unstoppable train. Maybe he did do it on purpose. His Best Rapper Alive moniker ensured the focus would be on him, whether people were arguing for it or against it, and he did what nobody who goes on to make nothing of themselves does: he owned it. I remember when this rapper first started singing. I remember when he performed in those leopard jeggings. I remember when he first picked up a guitar. I remember when rumors first started about his drug habit. I remember the lip piercing, the leather jackets, the energy, and I remember the confidence with every transformation. He wore and presented himself as a laundry list of the features we would normally associate with another genre that culturally we had no mobility in and he brought it to the mainstream. Over a decade after steam-rolling through all of the doubts, he is now what Hip Hop became. The Uzi Vert’s, the Trippie Red’s, the Post Malone’s, the Famous Dex’s, the Playboi Carti’s, the XXXtentacion’s and some of the hardest hitting acts in music such as Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Migos, Future, Travis $cott, Chance the Rapper, and more all unmistakably posses this man’s DNA as a direct result of his decisions all those years ago. Some may look at that in awe, some may look at it and cringe. Regardless of where you fall in line though, we should all agree that opening up doors for more varied forms of expression is what keeps a genre thriving.
Today Hip Hop is statistically the most dominant genre of music. And I don’t think that would be the case if it wasn’t for how varied and malleable the styles within it are. I don’t think it would have happened if the music and the fashion didn’t blur and bend into different territory. Hip Hop can’t be defined, nor can it be contained, nor can it be stopped and I just wanted to make it clear that it was Dwayne Carter behind the wheel when we arrived here.
Welcome back, Weezy.